Brewster & Co.
Brewster & Company was an American coachbuilder, active from 1810-1937. Their first known bodywork on an automobile was in 1896, on an electric car, and a gasoline powered car in 1905, on a Delaunay-Belleville chassis. Eventually they would use chassis from a variety of makers. From 1915-1925 and 1934-1935 they produced their own line of opulent and expensive automobiles at their plant in Long Island City.
In 1804 James Brewster became an apprentice to carriage builder Colonel Charles Chapman when he was 16 years old. He considered pursuing a life in the military, achieving the rank of Lieutenant in the Northampton militia, but ultimately decided "coachmaker with a competency" sounded better than "General Brewster". James had $30 when he completed his apprenticeship, heading out for New York in 1809, but there were delays along the way.
James was exploring New Haven, Connecticut, and had walked into a carriage manufactory. He became journeyman under John Cook, who owned a carriage-making shop. By 1810, he had finished working under Cook (having saved $250), gotten married, and opened up his own carriage shop, Brewster Carriage Co.
His coaches were of exceptional quality, and in a few years he would need to expand. James purchased the carriage shop of John, his former employer.
Brewster carriages began to get noticed in the larger cities, and he opened up a showroom and warehouse on Broad St. in New York City. To keep his best workers loyal, James would pay the highest wages, in cash every week. In contrast, other small establishments paid on and off, and not always with cash.
Eventually James would retire, with his younger son Henry running the New York branch, which became Brewster & Co. and his elder son, James B., running the rival firm of J.B. Brewster & Co. In 1883, Henry's 17 year old son William joined the company. After traveling about Europe to see and learn from the finest coachbuilders, William came home with an extremely discerning eye, scraping an 'X' with a pen knife on finished body panels that showed any imperfection, thereby requiring a complete re-finish. Later William adopted the slogan "Carriage Builder for the American Gentleman."
Brewster & Co. would present the following carriage configurations at the Paris Exposition in 1878: Brougham, Lady's Brougham, Cabriolet, Landau, Racing Sulky, Road Wagon, Park Drag, American Trotting Phaeton, Lady's Phaeton, T-Cart, Two-Wheeler, a double-suspension Victoria, and a Whitechapel Wagon.
To the surprise of everyone, Brewster won the Gold Award, the highest honor. His was the only American firm to win such at the Exposition. Henry was even personally awarded the Legion of Honor by the leader of France, while his employees would receive honors as well.
In 1905, Brewster would become importers for Delaunay-Belleville, the most desirable French car of the time. This would mark their first venture into automobile body building, and beginning their history of providing coachwork for prestigious autos.
From 1915 Brewster produced its own cars, called the Brewster Knight, recognizable by their oval radiators, patented leather fenders, and featuring the quiet and costly sleeve-valve Knight engine, until 1925.
Before 1914, most Brewster vehicle sales would be on Delaunay-Bellevilles, along with other French makes. In 1914, Brewster was carefully chosen as sales agents for Rolls-Royce, Ltd. and would be the main body suppliers for Rolls-Royce in the U.S.
By 1925, Brewster's car had few sales, trading with Europe had resumed, and Rolls-Royce of America was expanding and gaining bargaining power against Brewster. Executives from Rolls-Royce of America and Brewster met, and decided on the purchase of Brewster & Co. and their debt. Rolls-Royce would have cars fitted with temporary seats and protection, and driven from their Massachusetts plant to the Brewster Building in Long Island City, New York to have bodies installed. The Rolls-Royce showrooms would soon offer 28 standardized body styles, deliver cars to customers quicker, and for a lower price. Customers would be able to purchase models directly from the showroom as well.
After Rolls-Royce of America folded, from 1931 to 1934 Rolls-Royce Phantom II chassis were shipped directly from Britain to Brewster's large facility in Long Island City by Brewster, as well as by dealers and individuals.
The Ford deal and the End
By this time in the Great Depression, there was strong sentiment against the wealthy (and the archetypal Brewster-bodied Rolls-Royce) and Brewster was not selling well. In 1934 employee J.S. Inskip, who had taken control of operations to save Brewster from the Depression, purchased 135 Ford V8 roadster chassis and designed a body for it, identified by its swoopy fenders and a heart-shaped grille. 15 were made with the 1935 Ford grill. Stylish and sold for only $3,500, it was a hit at the 1934 New York Auto Show. The bodies were worth more than the chassis. These cars were registered as Brewsters and sold at Rolls-Royce showrooms, and were not branded as Fords.
Edsel Ford acquired the first shipped example. A 'one off' custom on a stretched 127-inch wheelbase, a 1934 Brewster Town Cabriolet DeVille (chassis number: 18-802233; engine number: 49493; Brewster build number 9002), which was the third Ford Brewster and the only that did not use the normal Brewster front end. Instead (at Edsel's request) 1934 Ford grill was installed. It is also the only example made with a standard Ford dash instead of the Brewster dash, 16 inch wheels in place of the standard 17s, and a banjo steering wheel. Edsel Ford kept it at a New York Ford Dealer, where he and his family could use it while in New York. In 1939, he had it retrofitted with a 239 Mercury flathead V8 engine that produced nearly 100 horsepower. It is one of Edsel Ford's few personal cars and still survives today in remarkable condition, unrestored. It was presented by RM Auctions at Automobiles of Amelia in 2008 where it sold for $198,000.
Inskip marketed the car to New York celebrities (see Notable Owners), with whom it became popular. The Ford Brewster project was initially profitable. Soon Brewster was taking losses and its bondholders and directors would claim something needed to be done. They insisted on closing down the firm and in July 1935, bankruptcy proceedings were instituted.
On August 18, 1937, the company was sold at public auction.
"You're the top! You're a Ritz hot toddy. You're the top! You're a Brewster body." The coachbuilder was immortalized in the Cole Porter song, "You're the Top" and is the only American to ever win the Gold Medal at the Paris International Exposition, a gathering of Europe's finest coachbuilders.
The manager of New York's National Horse Show, Edward King, was once asked whether he considered Brewster to be the Tiffany of carriage manufacturers: "My opinion is that Tiffany was the Brewster of jewelers." (indeed Tiffany was the younger company.)
Colonel Paul Downing for American Heritage Magazine, wrote in 1956: "However, it is doubtful that it can honestly be said that America took her place in the world of really fashionable carriages until the firm of Brewster & Company of Broome Street took the lead. It became a saying in the trade that a new style was of no value until it was established by Brewster."
- Brewster kept records of all family crests and colors of its customers. The Astors' was a blue, J. P. Morgan's dark green, and the Vanderbilts' was a shade of maroon. These reserved colors would sometimes make it difficult for new customers to choose a body color.
- Brewster formulated a secret oil-based finish, which required much less maintenance than varnishes used at the time. Other firms tried and failed to duplicate it.
- The company would build its own cars after the sinking of the Lusitania. They were smaller than the chassis it normally built upon, for navigating the streets of Manhattan. They cost as much as "a Packard Twin Six limousine plus a fleet of five Model T Ford roadsters."
- In response to chauffeurs regarding glaring street lights at night, Brewster styled a windshield with a four-pane design after much research. Although it wasn't patented, it became known as a "Brewster windshield" and was widely copied by body builders and production automobiles.
- Brewster was unique among coachbuilders, because they often sold complete cars, as well as building their own.
- The Brewster and Co. Aircraft Division was founded in 1924, and did not fare well during the Depression. It did produce a scout bomber (XSBA-1), and won a Navy contract to build F2A fighters.
- Brewster has also made speedboat hulls.
- Brewster made children’s pony carts as well as coaches designed to hold 20 or more people.
- The Brewster-bodied Ford chassis Town Car with heart-shaped grill is the only classic Ford designated by the Classic Car Club of America.
- Many automotive engineers and designers had their start at Brewster. The designer and engineer of Pierce-Arrow's cast-aluminum bodies from 1904–1920, James Way, first worked at Brewster. Head of Lincoln's coachbuilding division Henry Crecelius Sr. was persuaded to work there by Edsel Ford, from Brewster. Raymond Dietrich started at Brewster as a draftsman before being fired for secret designing for other makes. Harry Lonschein founded Rollston after starting out at Brewster.
- Louis Comfort Tiffany - Brewster's second gasoline auto chassis, a Panhard et Levassor
- John D. Rockefeller, Sr. - His Crane-Simplex had two Brewster bodies, for summer and winter. It is one of the last remaining Rockefeller Family cars.
- John D. Rockefeller, Jr. - Also owned a Crane-Simplex.
- Frank Winfield Woolworth - Owned a 1914 Brewster, custom built for him at a cost of $42,000. Earl Clark of Lancaster, PA bought the car in Scottsdale in 1973. It was on display in Lancaster -site of Woolworth's second "five-cent" store- for many years and is still owned by the Clark family. In recent years it has been run regularly, and stored in a climate-controlled building with other collector cars.
- Vincent Astor
- Edsel Ford - Purchased the first Brewster-bodied Ford available, it was the only one made with the standard Ford grille instead of the Brewster heart-shaped grille, and had the standard Ford dash rather than the Brewster dash which was usually installed.
Entertainers/Ford Brewster owners:
- Al Jolson - A known enthusiast of the new Brewster, owned four and two-seat convertibles
- Cole Porter
- Lily Pons
- Gertrude Lawrence
- Fred Waring
- Victor Moore
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